Synthpop With a New Millennium Aesthetic
Around a giant steamer trunk/makeshift table in a coffeehouse in the trendy Highland Square neighborhood of Akron, Ohio, three hours have come and gone, and the conversation is still flowing. We are just a few doors down from the Bucket Shop, the bar where legend has it Waitresses founder Chris Butler penned “I Know What Boys Like”, and around the corner from the former Ohio headquarters of Devo. The members of 20goto10 and I have been chatting all evening on subjects ranging from pastel green zombies to Gordon Lightfoot, and one thing is obvious: Using electronic music as the vehicle, these three musicians are willing to put themselves and their passion for quality emotional pop music out there for everyone’s pleasure.
A band this good isn’t born fully-formed, it is part of an evolution. Five years ago, Matt Sturgeon says, he and Bill Manke quit the “Goo Goo Dolls-sounding” rock band they were in with a singular goal for their next project: “to make interesting pop music—pop music that maintains a sense of mystery and coolness.” With the addition of Sara Eugene in 2003 and a rechristening of the band as 20goto10, they have delivered in-full. On their 2004 debut EP, 8 Bit Demos, 20goto10 displayed moments of brilliance, but their 2005 full-length effort, Tears from the Electric Eye, is a dazzling and coherent idea.
20goto10 produce organic, passionate music that is far removed from the “devoid of human emotion” synthesizer music that can sometimes stereotype the genre. With their use of mono synths, a vocoder, a Theremin, and Eugene’s operatic voice, 20goto10 have a natural feel that mixes ‘80s new wave progenitors like Yazoo, Propaganda, Xymox, and the Other Two with a new millennial aesthetic. Sturgeon, whose demeanor alternates between over-caffeination and under-stimulation, maintains that with so much of the music out there, “in the first twelve seconds you’ve heard the best that song’s ever going to get.” But the music of 20goto10 runs counter to that idea by design. Songs like “Without You” play with the conventions of song structure using a strong synth hook change-up and by reversing the lyric order between verses. “The Wrong Connection” mixes an organic synth line with Sturgeon’s vocoder work and Eugene’s lush, classically trained vocals.
Everyone in the band brings something unique to the composition process, and the dynamics always appear to be shifting. Sturgeon’s musical ideas, influenced by his love of dark, electronic film scores, are laid out in bass and melody to later be fleshed out with Manke, the most reserved of the trio. And Manke, in turn, combines his keyboard work with Eugene to sketch the lyrics in a stream of consciousness approach. While the bulk of the lyrical content comes from Eugene and Manke, they continually refer back to Sturgeon for input as the song evolves. The outcome is a product representative of the entire group.
By first introducing the synthesizer work of Sturgeon and Manke with the instrumental “220/110”, Tears from the Electric Eye builds methodically. The synthesizer blends seamlessly into “Make Sense”, where we get our first glimpse into the power of Eugene’s voice. By the time “Move On” begins, all the pieces are in place for the smeared lipstick delivery of pop perfection. This song is a showcase for the band—Sturgeon’s driving beats, Manke’s danceable synth lines, and Eugene’s full, throaty vocals. And all of the tracks on the album hold fast to the notion of being immediately accessible on some level—either with a specific vocal line or musical line—and also containing something that, as Eugene puts it, “you have to wait for work for” with multiple listens. The danceable gloss of Tears from the Electric Eye belies much more traveling under the surface—this is a near-perfect synthpop breakup album.
With a tormented opening push and broken delivery of “This time / I want to lose / I want to fail / Beyond compare / I want to wreck / This life I’m living”, songs like “The Difference Between Complacency and Contentment” would lyrically be right at home on a Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails album, but the music itself rarely moves into such overtly dark places. Sturgeon and Manke wisely keep the angst bubbling below the surface, instead of allowing it to overwhelm. In Northeast Ohio, if you make electronic music, you’re either a goth or industrial band. Early-on, 20goto10 felt the need to turn down certain gigs to avoid being pigeonholed. Confident in having since established themselves as a pop band, this is quickly becoming what Sturgeon refers to as the “Summer of Can’t Say No”. They are now courting Detroit, Michigan, and Cincinnati, Ohio, for an end of summer run.
On stage, there is no standing around and twiddling knobs with this band. Joined by bassist Corey Jenkins for a number of tunes, they work up a sweat as the lithe Eugene moves and sways while Sturgeon and Manke toil between the eight synthesizers available to them. Throughout the set, both during and between songs, Sturgeon jumps back and forth between his bank of synthesizers and Manke’s, often delivering comments to his band-mates. During “Constellation”—the softly twitchy love song that closes the main set and is unlike anything else in their catalog in both tone and feel—Eugene longs to not be a star “that’s so alone and hurting those who come too near”, and Sturgeon delivers a Theremin solo that raises the bar for live electronic music. Hearing them recorded is amazing, but seeing them carry a live show is stunning, and you realize that it is only a matter of time before this band is signed.
As critical as the members of 20goto10 are of music in general, they can get away with it because what they are producing really is that much better than most of what is currently being made, regardless of genre. This successful execution has been no accident. 20goto10 is a band with realistic expectations, but whose high ambitions are equally matched by their ability. Eugene explains that “The big idea [behind the next album, expected in February 2006] is that it’s about how people use morality as a weapon,” but in the context of such 17th and 19th century touchstones as the Salem Witch Trials and the Jack the Ripper murders. Of course, with a wry sense of self-awareness, Manke is quick to follow up with a laugh that he thinks they should be OK tackling this weighty subject matter as long as they don’t ever mention those case studies by name. (After interpreting the E.M. Forster short story “The Machine Stops” with clanging, foreboding success on the current album, you believe this trio can pull it off.) There is also talk of adding a guitar to the next album, but before any of that can be done, there is a planned remix collection of Tears from the Electric Eye for later this year, featuring six remixes by others, two by 20goto10, and two new songs.
Even outside of their music, 20goto10 stands out. From the New Order homage of the limited edition 8 Bit Demos EP (the CD is delivered inside a 5 ¼” floppy diskette casing, complete with white paper sleeve), to the cheeky insider one-offs riddled throughout their web presence (the polyhedral dice, Dungeons & Dragons-influenced T-shirt logo), to the unexpected tour de force analog cover of Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark” at their live shows, this is a band with a savvy sense of identity and humor.
The house lights in the coffeehouse come up, signaling it’s time for us to move on. We say our good-byes and I watch the three members of 20goto10 make their way up the sidewalk in search of a bite to eat on this warm Ohio night. And I realize this is one of those times when all the right pieces are in place: Three very different people whose unique contributions drive the success of the whole. While first and foremost they are a synthpop band, they are shattering the stereotypes. As Eugene put it, “We fit. We’re typified, but we’re doing something that’s our own We’re pushing the boundaries of that [label] and so we’ll take it.”
10 PRINT POP MUSIC FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM IS HERE
20 GOTO 10